I clearly remember my last trip to Donetsk in May 2014 as a staff member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (OSCE/SMM). There were occasional shootings in the city and our security protocol prohibited us from leaving the hotel. As we were leaving, our brand new armored truck brought us to Donetsk’s once posh airport, now an empty and dark place. There were only a few passengers among men in unidentified uniforms and a tank nestled in a flower bed, pointing its muzzle at the departing planes.
We arrived safely in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, but a few days later Donetsk airport became the scene of a deadly battle between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military.
In 2014, it was abundantly clear that what happens in the Donbass region, along the Ukrainian border, stays there. The Ukrainian military localized the war, so most civilians (except those living near the battlefield) did not feel its effects. The beaches of Odessa, the restaurants of Kiev and the ski resorts of the Carpathians operated as usual. Yet for many, including myself, it was obvious that the situation in Donbass was like a deep wound covered with a simple bandage — you may not be able to see it, but if you don’t get it right treated, it can cost you your life.
This military reinforcement which was perceived a few months ago as mere chatter has since become a resounding alarm bell for Ukrainian society. Ironically, the alarm was raised by foreign diplomats, politicians and the media as Ukraine’s political establishment was slow to recognize the threat. Among my circle of journalists, civil activists, academics and a few opposition politicians, there was a desperate search for answers to a crucial question: what should we do as citizens if Russia attacks?
The recent response that finally came from the Ukrainian president didn’t really help.
In the absence of adequate top-down communication, many citizens choose to follow common-sense survival rules: stockpile food and establish meeting points with loved ones in case communication is interrupted.
Those who are not lucky enough to access the metro should take refuge in places such as underground parking lots, basements of condominiums and other public and commercial properties. Some cellars designated as bomb shelters in 2014–2015 were later reallocated to civilian use to function as emergency bomb shelters. But a friend told me that a basement in her building that was previously to be designated as a shelter has been rented out and now houses a cafe, while another designated shelter in my neighborhood was completely demolished during a construction.
People admit that uncertainty and a lack of clear emergency instructions drain their intellectual and emotional resources, making it difficult to focus on current tasks and their ability to make long-term plans. Yet denial would be even more harmful.
This whole situation reminds me of an episode from Julian Barnes’ novel, “The Sound of Time”, a fictionalized biography of the famous Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Amid a KGB hunt for the intelligentsia, Barnes wrote that Shostakovich was pretty sure he would be arrested. So every night (usually the KGB would make arrests in the middle of the night, to catch people off guard) he would pack a small suitcase and stand in front of the elevator for hours, waiting for the KGB to pick him up. . He even thought of bringing a chair to make his wait more comfortable. Every time he heard the noise of the elevator, his heart skipped a beat, but when the elevator stopped at another floor, he came to his senses and went home with his suitcase. Until the next evening.
Right now, people in Ukraine are acting collectively like Shostakovich: they can’t help but be vigilant, even if they are exhausted, while Vladimir Putin himself is acting like the KGB.